Italian populists sue black politician for calling their anti-immigrant party racist | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 03.10.2018
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Italian populists sue black politician for calling their anti-immigrant party racist

Italian MEP Cecile Kyenge is facing a legal showdown with a far-right party whose politicians have worn blackface and called her an ape. She told DW that she's standing up for "people who can't defend themselves."

Cecile Kyenge, Italy's former integration minister, has seen plenty of racism. In the past five years, lawmakers from far-right party the League have called the country's first black minister "a great housekeeper," compared her to an orangutan, described the government she served in as a "bongo bongo" administration and worn blackface to a debate. In 2013, the Padua local-level League councilor Dolores Valandro called for Kyenge to be raped.

Though the League promptly expelled Valandro, there was not so much as a reprimand for the party members who engaged in the other acts of racism. Two serve as government ministers, and another sits in the European Parliament. The League declined to comment for this article.

"I started to say, OK, the League is a racist party because it didn't take a stand," Kyenge said. "It voted for and re-elected those same people to institutional positions."

Read moreItaly and the EU clash over budget plan

Now, in a twist that has angered anti-racism campaigners across the country, the League is taking Kyenge to court for defamation. The case comes amid a broader uptick in xenophobic sentiment and a rise in attacks on foreign-born citizens since the country's general election in March.

"It's paradoxical," said Kyenge, who was assigned a bodyguard as part of a protection program in response to racist attacks and death threats. "If we lower our guard in the fight against racism or xenophobia or populism, this is where we get to — where the situation [of racists and minorities] is reversed."

If found guilty of defamation, Kyenge could face a hefty fine. Italian courts had previously thrown out two earlier attempts to sue the Congolese-born Member of the European Parliament. The League's third attempt will go to trial after a judge ruled that Kyenge's accusation tars the entire party and not just the individuals concerned.

Drifting further right

Italy's co-ruling League party has long held an anti-establishment stance. But until recently the enemy was Rome, not Brussels, and jibes about identity were targeted at southern Italians, not foreigners. Under current leader Matteo Salvini, the League has transformed from a party of regional populism to one of right-wing nationalism — with the European Union and immigrants squarely in its crosshairs.

The League won 17.4 percent of the vote in March, finishing third behind the Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party, but has risen to become the dominant force in Italian politics since entering a coalition government with Five Star. Opinion polls in September put its support at 32 percent, slightly ahead of Five Star's 30 percent.

Read more: Which side is the Five Star Movement on?

But the strength of the League's anti-immigrant rhetoric has unsettled even the populist Five Star Movement, which has at times found itself at odds with Salvini over his attitude to refugees and refusal to let rescue ships carrying migrants picked up in the Mediterranean disembark in Italy.

Italy's interior minister and leader of the far-right League, Matteo Salvini

Salvini's xenophobic rhetoric has at times put him at odds with his party's coalition partners

Salvini last month likened African migrants to "slaves" and has previously dismissed accusations of racism as "an invention of the left." His xenophobic tirades have also coincided with a rise in hate crime that has drawn widespread condemnation from rights organizations.

Nine shootings targeting ethnic minorities took place over just 50 days this summer, including one incident where a former government employee shot a 13-month-old Roma child in the back with an air gun, and another in which a Senegalese street vendor's thigh was fractured by shooters on a scooter.

According to Grazia Naletto, head of the migration and anti-racism unit at the nongovernmental organization Lunario, the rise in shootings and other violence against foreigners has been encouraged by a rise in "racist discourse."

"The current political and social climate in Italy concerns foreign minorities a lot," said Naletto. "The last political elections are just a step [in] a long process of political, social and cultural legitimation of racism — which has deep historical roots."

Underlying tensions

Unlike other large Western European countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, large-scale immigration to Italy is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, net migration reached 144,000 people, according to Italy's national statistics office. The highest relative rise came from four African countries: Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana.

Read more: Italy: 100 days of a populist experiment

Italy's aging population and low birth rate has led opposition lawmakers to celebrate the arrival of a mostly younger generation ready to kick-start the economy. But a persistently high youth unemployment rate has left many Italians wary.

The rescue ship Aquarius (Getty Images/AFP/F. Scoppa)

Many refugees in Italy undertook a perilous journey to reach Europe, but that hasn't made the new government in Rome more accepting

Perceived competition for jobs and "cultural upheaval" has fed a sense of threat to Italians' national identity, said Nicoletta Cavazza, a social psychology professor at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

"Some political parties, like the League, have cleverly taken advantage of this situation," said Cavazza, "because their proposed representation of the world — primarily based on a distinction between 'us' and 'them' — fitted well with the dynamic we are facing."

This has legitimized thoughts, feelings and behaviors that many citizens would otherwise suppress, suggests Cavazza, who points to social science research showing a difference between "manifest racism" that is conscious and "latent racism" that simmers underneath.

"Nowadays, I think that it would be easier to find that the two dimensions converge," said Cavazza, "because the public discourse is so openly discriminatory toward foreigners."

Changing that discourse is a key priority for Kyenge. The MEP, whose job protects her against prosecution, has chosen to stand trial as a public statement against racism.

"I have waived my diplomatic immunity," said Kyenge. "I'm here not for Cecile Kyenge, but for everyone. I'm here for people who can't defend themselves. I'm here to start saying there are some things that shouldn't happen."

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